Anthony Tommasini (CFA’82) “posed” for classical music composer Virgil Thomson, then performed his work | Bostonia


In the summer of 1984, musical writer Anthony Tommasini visited composer Virgil Thomson at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City to “pose” for one of Thomson’s short musical portraits. He brought a copy of News week to read while sitting, and became increasingly annoyed by an article about the sexism facing Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

Tommasini says that composer Virgil Thomson made his subjects sit for him. “Everyone ‘posed’, in a sense. It wasn’t exactly what you looked like. It was more of your aura, your presence. Photo by Earl Wilson /New York Times

“I thought the portrait was going to come out like that lyrical, Italian-style sort of thing, and it starts like that,” said Tommasini, now chief classical music critic at New York Times. “But then it all starts to shatter in these big massive chords, and they collide, and there’s a great dissonance, and it just gets more and more intense. Virgil was surprised at how it came out and so am I. But I am convinced that at that point he captured my liberal indignation.

The piece, “A Study in Chords”, is included in the new CD reissue box, Portraits, self-portraits and songs, which brings together dozens of pieces, including portraits of Jane Bowles, Alice Toklas and Aaron Copland, performed by Tommasini (CFA’82) on the piano and a handful of collaborators on the violin and other instruments. Tommasini recorded the album Portraits and self-portraits in the 1990s, followed by an album of Thomson songs and other vocal works, Especially on love. Both albums have now been reissued by Everbest Music under the auspices of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.

Not the first composer to try musical portraiture, Thomson (1896-1989) began during a stay in Paris in the 1920s, in part inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein, who wrote prose portraits of people “with great spontaneity, ”says Tommasini from his Manhattan home. .

“In Paris, he lived among all these painters who were always doing portraits of people. So he thought, “I’m going to do what they do,” and he made his subjects sit down for him. Everyone “posed”, in a sense. It wasn’t exactly what you looked like. It was more of your aura, your presence. So you could read a book. Sometimes, when he was making a painter, the painter would make a sketch of Virgil. You could go to sleep! It didn’t matter.

Tommasini wrote his doctoral thesis at the BU on the portraits of Thomson, which he edited and published under the title The musical portraits of Virgil Thomson (Pendragon Press, 1986); he also wrote Thomson’s biography, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the aisle (WW Norton & Company, 1998). He hopes that the reissue of the CDs will gain greater recognition for both the portraits and the vocal works.

“Thomson was a master, perhaps one of the the masters, of prosody, which is the technique of setting words to music so that the words are clear, ”he says. “His vocal music is extraordinary because of his incredible sensitivity to making words clear. In concert, if the lyrics of a song by Virgil Thomson are not clear, it’s not Virgil’s fault, it’s the singer’s fault.

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